Gareth Southgate is now at the midway point in his interim spell in charge of England and it’s been underwhelming to say the least.
Despite opening his spell with two highly winnable matches, Southgate could only inspire a 0-0 draw against 67th ranked Slovenia, having Joe Hart to thank for producing some acrobatic saves to secure a point for the Three Lions. Quite honestly, England were lucky to escape Ljubljana with a point. It ended a run of 14 successive qualifier victories stretching back to 2013.
In his post-match press conference, Southgate said he had “taken over a mess.” Regardless of the accuracy of his statement, what can we learn about the mess that is England from Southgate’s opening two matches?
1. Full of Hart
There’s long been debate over whether a more continental football education would benefit England players, and Hart is now a name supporting this argument.
After being harshly exiled by Pep Guardiola and having a shaky start to his Torino career, making a mistake leading to a goal on his debut, Hart re-emphasised his class with a magnificent ‘Man of the Match’ performance to keep Slovenia at bay.
Twice he was exposed by poor ‘blind’ back-passes from Eric Dier and stand-in captain Jordan Henderson, but twice he came to the rescue. He also produced one of the best saves of his career from a corner.
Southgate revealed he had a “long chat” with Hart and was rightly full of praise for the 29-year-old, commenting: “We owe our goalkeeper really for getting a point.”
It was long-awaited redemption for the forgotten man and a welcome reminder of his ability.
2. Blind following the blind
England are without direction at present. It was a marked feature of Roy Hodgson’s leadership and Southgate is yet to provide the light that England’s players need to navigate out of the darkness.
These two qualifiers have shown that England are still unsure of their direction. It’s the manager’s job to provide tactical instruction and guidance, but Southgate is yet to impart any discernable style of play onto his squad.
There was nothing in those two performances that pointed to any attempts to create an England vision or to carve a path for the future.
I know Southgate wants to prioritise continuity in the hope of securing the job permanently, but blindness is not an aspect of the Hodgson and Allardyce eras that needs to be perpetuated. Someone must lead England back into the light.
3. 99 problems, but Rooney isn’t one
Much has been said already about Rooney’s position in the England squad. It’s been agreed that he doesn’t deserve to start and Southgate was brave enough to drop his captain for the Slovenia match. The temptation for scapegoating is strong, but even his fiercest of critics can agree that he’s not the sole problem. At least not the whole problem anyway.
We saw one match with Rooney and one without. Both were equally as uninspiring. It’s clear that problems exist whether he starts or not; the rot runs much deeper than just one player.
England’s forward players lacked the much-craved fluidity that Rooney’s absences heralded and Dier was unable to shield the defence in the way he did so admirably last season. No matter how hard critics try, this can’t be blamed on Rooney.
4. Still shackled by fear
On BBC Radio 5 Live, Danny Mills commented that England were “outplayed, outmuscled and outthought.” Quite right, as England’s caution and fragility were extremely visible in last night’s display. It was a performance characterised by timidity and lacking resolve.
“I think mentality is big in football,” said Henderson before the match, and nothing could have been more accurate last night. England are still mentally weak as a collective, shackled by the years of hurt and disappointment and they exercise too much caution on the pitch.
It was a factor under Hodgson, Allardyce saw glimpses of the “nervous tension” against Slovakia, and Southgate has done nothing to ease it.
5. Expectations Kill
Perhaps the biggest thing clarified by the international break is that England just aren’t as good as we think. We ride off our one World Cup win in 1966, thinking that reputation 50 years later is enough to overshadow current ability.
Why do we have this massive sense of entitlement? The huge and completely unfounded expectations set by fans and the media may be decisive, but why do we expect so much in the first place? We have no right to expect anything based on recent showings.
Confidence is important, but not when it starts leading to silly, unnecessary mistakes at the back. England’s players may think they’re better than they actually are, which is a recipe for disaster. Henderson’s blind back-pass to Hart, putting Slovenia’s Illicic through on goal, epitomises this.
There’s disappointment aplenty after last night’s result, but should we even be disappointed? We were lucky to escape with a draw after all; perhaps we’ve found our level. All England can do is accept the inevitable and improve from here.